Winter movements and roosting ecology

Wild turkeys push through winter, with an eye on spring.

“O, wind, if winter comes, can spring be far behind?” — Percy Shelley

Who doesn’t appreciate a quote that conveys thoughts in such a simplistic way? For turkey hunters, winter’s grip has us looking toward spring, when we once again chase toms and match wits against the birds that occupy our minds all year.

Speaking personally, I love to deer hunt; it’s a passion that defines much of my life, and I work all year for the opportunity to hunt, enjoy cool weather and fill my freezer with venison. But as winter winds down, I start anticipating the upcoming spring and the bounties it’s sure to bring.

In the turkey world, winter is defined by large, highly mobile flocks of birds. These flocks may be readily observable from day to day or seem to vanish into thin air as they move about the landscape looking for foraging resources and suitable roost sites.

The behavior of winter flocks can differ dramatically compared to other times of the year. These flocks operate as a group and require lots of forage. Therefore, winter flocks can exhibit interesting behaviors — behaviors that influence the smaller flocks that end up being the groups of birds we hunt in early spring.

HAVE ACORNS, WILL TRAVEL

As discussed in previous columns, winter flocks typically include multiple social groups of birds that move about the landscape together searching for quality foraging areas.

Heading into winter, wild turkeys concern themselves with only two important aspects of life: find food and don’t die while doing that. Unlike spring, when life gets complicated because of breeding activities, life during winter revolves around the desire to find food and stay safe. Finding food in winter hinges on the flock’s ability to locate acorns or other mast-producing species and, when the supplies run low, adjust and move to another area.

Anyone who has spent time in the winter woods around wild turkeys knows that a large flock of birds is somewhat noisy. They vocalize to maintain contact and “discuss” what they are encountering. The problem with this approach is that they also attract attention from predators. However, the basic principle of safety in numbers applies to wild turkeys during winter.

Research shows that wild turkeys survive relatively well in winter. The size of their home range is greatest during this timeframe. We often view space use as an important metric, because having to maintain too large a range can negatively impact survival. Turkeys find ways in the winter to work around this potential problem. A flock of birds has a greater probability of detecting predators and finding food. So, flocks cover ground and keep their eyes peeled. This results in winter home ranges sometimes twice or three times larger than those in other seasons.

THE CHANGING WINDS OF ROOST SELECTION

Roost sites are important places to wild turkeys, providing protection from predators and inclement weather. Roost sites also position birds where they can readily access high quality forage. Collectively, deciding where to roost is critically important and that becomes increasingly complex in winter. Unlike much of the year, turkeys must consider thermoregulation (maintaining core internal temperature) while roosting during winter. This brings wind direction, elevation and aspect (the direction a slope faces) into the decision-making process.

Wild turkeys use fewer roosts in summer than in spring, but winter roost selection can change markedly. In a single month, flocks may use single sites repeatedly, or use dozens of sites scattered across a large range.

As an example, the first figure shows selected locations where birds were foraging (yellow dots) and roost locations (blue dots) during November for a hen monitored in Georgia. She uses many roosts in a single month and covers some serious ground — the area encompassing all of those points is 5,500 acres!

The second figure shows the same data points relative to topography. The take home here is that this hen often roosts on slopes, but her selection is highly variable. Presumably, her decision to roost in so many locations is driven by food availability, as we know acorn abundance and accessibility greatly influence how turkeys behave in winter.

These figures and the data used to create them speak volumes to something many landowners and managers fail to recognize. That is, wild turkeys are highly mobile, and this mobility becomes obvious in winter when flocks worry only about finding food and avoiding predators. In the winter world of wild turkeys, the saying, “Here today, gone tomorrow,” certainly can apply.

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